Budget Bridge Built on College Funds
by Chris Casey - The Greeley Tribune
April 07, 2009
Local students and administrators fear Coloradans could face much steeper tuition and fewer college choices if the proposed long bill, which slices more than $300 million from higher-education funding, goes through.
About 50 University of Northern Colorado students joined a group of 120 students from universities and colleges statewide for a rally Monday at the state Capitol. The rally was organized by the Associated Students of Colorado.
Lawmakers are trying to bridge a $900 million gap in state tax revenue between this year and next.
The $300 million chunk represents almost half of the state’s $700 million appropriation to higher education in fiscal year 2009. Education officials say such a cut would require colleges to backfill through steep tuition increases, or possibly even by closing some smaller campuses in the community college system.
Matt Dunsmoor, vice president of legislative affairs for UNC’s Student Representative Council, said while sacrifices must be made in the poor economy, the state’s economic future is at stake if college funding is decimated. The skilled work force Colorado needs to grow the economy won’t be filled if students can’t afford to go to college, he said.
“We’re looking for a short-term fix (with the cuts) rather than looking long term, and we’re really messing up our long term by doing this,” Dunsmoor said.
He said the students’ message was well-received by lawmakers, including Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, of the Joint Budget Committee, which last week made the recommendation for reductions in higher-education spending.
“All the people we talked to said, ‘We’d love to help you. If you can find the money elsewhere we’d love to help you,’ ” said Dunsmoor, a senior. “ … It’s going to be a rough road ahead.”
Some lawmakers want to reverse the higher-education cut by taking $500 million from the surplus accumulated by Pinnacol Assurance, the state-created workers’ compensation insurance company. All recommended changes, such as the plan to take Pinnacol’s surplus, which is opposed by the Pinnacol board, must be approved by the full legislature.
Dunsmoor said the Pinnacol suggestion is “a pretty heated debate” but it acts, even if passed, as a one-time fix.
“We’re still putting a Band-Aid on something that’s long term,” he said. The $300 million “is a permanent cut. It’s a starting point, basically.”
Both UNC President Kay Norton and the Colorado Commission on Higher also condemned the proposed cut in state support. Besides tuition hikes, colleges may be forced to limit admission for in-state students, because tuition charged to out-of-state students is greater.
The JBC’s proposed cut “would fundamentally change the nature of public higher education in Colorado,” Norton wrote in a letter to the campus Friday. “If institutions have to dramatically raise tuition and cut programs, we will no longer be able to serve the students who most need to attend college in Colorado. In fact, it’s unlikely that many of these students could attend college at all.”
Norton wrote that pitting colleges against the workers’ compensation company is unproductive and implored lawmakers to “go back to the drawing board and find a solution to the budget crisis.”
A resolution passed Friday by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education said to backfill the loss of state support would require up to a 68 percent increase in tuition rates — cost-prohibitive to many students.
“The proposed reductions will have tragic consequences in closing the door of opportunity for thousands of Colorado students at a time when job losses are driving more students to return to higher education,” the resolution states.
Higher education is one of few places Colorado lawmakers have latitude to cut because K-12, prisons and Medicaid get hefty chunks of state funding and are protected by constitutional amendments and federal mandates.
One of the budget balancing proposals would eliminate the fee that retailers now get to keep for collecting state sales tax. That would give the state $31 million.
Lawmakers are considering the cuts and transfers because legislative economists predict a deeper and longer recession in Colorado than originally expected. They also are preparing in case their next economic forecast in June is even worse.
About $200 million of the $500 million being eyed from Pinnacol would be put in a reserve fund to plug any additional holes if revenues are forecast to drop off even more. If not, the money could also be used to reverse some of the cuts lawmakers are now considering.
Dunsmoor said UNC students will launch a letter-writing campaign to senators, stressing that the cuts are too severe.
“In Colorado, we don’t fund a lot of stuff. We just don’t want to pay the taxes,” he said. “It may take this huge drop (in funding) to show that this really is important and the taxes are going to something good.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.